2006 Season Previews
NFC South
Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 11-5).
Major Additions:
RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Keyshawn Johnson, OT Rashad Butler, C Justin Hartwig, DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, DT Damione Lewis, OLB Keith Adams, OLB Na'il Diggs, CB Richard Marshall, S Shaun Williams.
Major Subtractions:
RB Stephen Davis, WR Ricky Proehl, G Tutan Reyes, C Jeff Mitchell, DT Brentson Buckner, OLB Will Witherspoon, OLB Brandon Short, CB Ricky Manning Jr., CB Dante Wesley, S Marlon McCree, S Idrees Bashir, KR Rod Smart.

Offense This Year: Why does it seem that the Panthers are always on the short end as far as injuries are concerned? In 2004, Carolina suffered through catastrophic injuries and still managed to recover from a 1-7 start. Last year, the team saw DeShaun Foster go down in the second round of the playoffs against Chicago. The Panthers had to go with backup Nick Goings, and were consequently defeated by the Seahawks the following week.

To avoid a similar situation in 2006, Carolina drafted running back DeAngelo Williams with its No. 1 pick. Williams will be a valuable player to have in case Foster (879 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 2 TDs in 2005) incurs another serious injury. Another phenomenal offseason acquisition was the signing of Keyshawn Johnson, who will join Steve Smith at receiver. With Johnson in place, defenses will no longer have the luxury of triple-teaming Smith, one of the top three wide outs in the league. Smith caught 103 passes for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Jake Delhomme, who threw for 3,421 yards and 24 touchdowns, will certainly enjoy Johnson's presence.

There are two areas of concern that Carolina did not address. Although Delhomme was sacked only 28 times last season, he had Seahawks defenders breathing down his neck during the entire NFC Championship Game. He was also pinned to the ground eight times in a November meeting against the Bears. Carolina replaced center Jeff Mitchell with Justin Hartwig, but failed to make an upgrade left tackle, which is currently occupied by the lackluster Travelle Wharton. The Panthers also should have added a new tight end to the roster; incumbent Kris Mangum (202 yards, 2 TDs) is not getting the job done.

Defense This Year: Carolina is renown for its gritty defense. After all, the team surrendered 14 or less points on nine occasions in 2005. The Panthers were second against the run, as they permitted just 3.5 yards per carry to opposing rushers. They also compiled 45 sacks, anchored by Julius Peppers' 10 and Mike Rucker's 7. Carolina's hectic pass rush helped its defensive backs register a mind-boggling 23 interceptions, led by Chris Gamble (7) and Ken Lucas (6).

Joining Peppers and Rucker on the defensive line will be Kris Jenkins, a perennial Pro Bowler who played in only one game last year. Linebackers Thomas Davis and Dan Morgan only add to the potency of the stop unit, while free safety Mike Minter will once again join Gamble and Lucas in a formidable secondary.

However, like the offense, Carolina failed to address a few needs on defense. Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon defected for St. Louis, and will be replaced by Keith Adams, who was a backup on the Eagles. While Adams is a great player on special teams, he is too small to be starting in this league. Strong safety Shaun Williams, who was essentially discarded by the Giants, will be an unworthy substitute for Marlon McCree, who left for San Diego. And finally, I'm not a big fan of defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu, who will be asked to replace the aging Brentson Buckner.

Carolina will continue to boast one of the better defenses in the NFL, but I'm puzzled as to why the team failed to address a few areas of concern.

Schedule and Intangibles: The Panthers currently hold domination over Atlanta (they swept the Falcons last year) and Tampa Bay (5-1 vs. the Bucs since 2003). If they maintain a stronghold over their NFC South foes, they will have a great chance of winning the division. ... Kicker John Kasay was 19-of-22 in 2004, and 28-of-36 in 2005. That said, he nailed only 9-of-17 attempts from beyond 40 yards last season. That needs to improve. ... The Panthers need to develop a better home-field advantage. They are only 45-43 as a host since 1995. The only NFC teams to have worse records are Arizona and New Orleans. ... Carolina will be confronted with a barrage of difficult non-divisional opponents, including: Cincinnati, Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Giants. But unlike the Buccaneers, the team has a few soft spots (Minnesota, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis) on its slate.

Analysis: Although the Panthers are a few pieces short of guaranteeing themselves another Super Bowl appearance, they are still one of the elite teams in the NFC. I wouldn't be surprised if Carolina and Seattle clash in the NFC Championship again.

Projection: 12-4 (1st in the NFC South).

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last Year: 11-5).
Major Additions:
QB Jay Fiedler, WR Maurice Stovall, WR David Boston, OT Torrin Tucker, OT Jeremy Trueblood, G Davin Joseph, G Toniu Fonoti, CB Alan Zemaitis.
Major Subtractions:
QB Brian Griese, FB Jameel Cook, OT Todd Steussie, OLB Jeff Gooch, S Dexter Jackson.

Offense This Year: Although Brian Griese commanded the Buccaneers to a shocking 5-1 start, Chris Simms was the quarterback that really impressed Buccaneers fans in 2005. Simms, who let the NFL world know that he was a legitimate starting signal caller by leading Tampa Bay over the Redskins in a thrilling 36-35 victory, has become the first franchise quarterback the Buccaneers have had in a very long time.

But exactly how good was he? Simms threw 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions and compiled a decent rating of 81.4. However, he did not fare as well on the road and in the postseason. In six such contests, Simms fumbled five times, and threw two touchdowns and five picks. Tampa Bay was 3-3 in those situations. Simms, who was playing in his first full season, needs to continue to mature.

Aiding his effort is a pair of dynamic wide receivers. Joey Galloway, one of the fastest players at his position, caught 83 passes for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns. Michael Clayton, coming off an 1,193-yard campaign in 2004, only registered 32 receptions in 2005, but was hampered by injuries. Tight end Alex Smith also figures into the mix; as a rookie in 2005, he accumulated 41 catches and two touchdowns. The best player on Tampa Bay's offense is Cadillac Williams, who rumbled for 1,178 yards and six scores as a rookie. With a year of experience under his belt, I expect Cadillac to become more of a factor in the passing game (he only had 81 receiving yards).

One area where the Buccaneers needed to improve was the offensive line. Simms and Griese were sacked 41 times last year, yet Jon Gruden neglected to address the front in free agency. Instead, he spent his first two picks on linemen (guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood). Gruden simply didn't do enough to improve a unit that needed help at virtually every position. Simms will once again be sacked far too often.

Defense This Year: Let me gush about how great Tampa Bay's defense was in 2005 for a few sentences. The unit, which surrendered more than 17 points on only five occasions, was ranked first against opposing ground attacks, as it yielded just 3.3 yards per carry to running backs. The Buccaneers also happened to surrender only 2,929 passing yards, thanks to an outstanding secondary and Simeon Rice's 14 sacks.

In addition to Rice and the four starting defensive backs -- Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Will Allen and Jermaine Phillips -- the defense is peppered with phenomenal talents and perennial Pro Bowlers. Excluding Rice, the best player on Tampa Bay's roster is outside linebacker Derrick Brooks. Defensive tackles Booger McFarland and Chris Hovan, who were responsible for the team's potency against the run, must also be mentioned. The Buccaneers also have great backups, including defensive end Dewayne White, defensive tackle Ellis Wyms, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and rookie cornerback Alan Zemaitis.

The way I'm going, it sounds like I have nothing bad to say about Tampa Bay's stop unit. Well, that's not the case. There is one concern that could hamper the Buccaneers, and that happens to be age. Six starters will all be 30 or older by the time the 2006 campaign commences: Defensive end Greg Spires (32), Rice (32), middle linebacker Shelton Quarles (35), Brooks (33), Barber (31) and Kelly (30) are all past their primes and will soon need to be replaced. Will age be a problem this year? For Quarles, definitely. Spires, Rice, Brooks and Barber have at least one more year of positive productivity.

Schedule and Intangibles: In their existence, the Buccaneers have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown. That's really hard to believe. ... Kicker Matt Bryant, who replaced Martin Gramatica, nailed 11-of-13 attempts from beyond 40 yards. ... Tampa Bay is clearly on the rise after its post-Super Bowl debacle, but can the team finally beat Carolina? The Panthers are 5-1 against the Bucs the previous three seasons. ... Playing in a very competitive division, the Buccaneers didn't catch any breaks in terms of their non-divisional slate. Challenging opponents include: Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Seattle and the Giants.

Analysis: The Buccaneers have one of the toughest schedules I've ever seen. Even though they are one of the better teams in the NFL, the rigorous slate they must endure could prove to be too much to handle.

Projection: 9-7 (2nd in the NFC South).

New Orleans Saints (Last Year: 3-13).
Major Additions:
QB Drew Brees, RB Reggie Bush, RB Michael Bennett, G Jonathan Goodwin, C Jeff Faine, DT Hollis Thomas, OLB Scott Fujita, OLB Anthony Simmons, OLB Tommy Polley, S Bryan Scott, S Omar Stoutmire, KR Bethel Johnson.
Major Subtractions:
QB Aaron Brooks, RB Anthony Thomas, RB Antowain Smith, WR Az Hakim, OT Wayne Gandy, G Kendyl Jacox, G/C LeCharles Bentley, DE Darren Howard, DT Johnathan Sullivan, OLB Sedrick Hodge, MLB Ronald McKinnon, CB Fakhir Brown, S Mel Mitchell.

Offense This Year: Despite all of the talent New Orleans had on offense last year, it produced just 21 total touchdowns, while being restricted to 17 or less points on 12 occasions. But given the tragedy the city went through, and the fact that the Saints essentially became nomads, a mulligan must be given to them. New Orleans is starting over; both the city and team are rebuilding.

The organization signed free-agent Drew Brees to a 6-year contract and drafted the dynamic, multi-purpose Reggie Bush with the No. 2 overall pick. If Brees' shoulder is healthy -- he was injured in the final contest of the 2005 season -- he will have an extraordinary amount of talent at almost every position.

While Bush will see action in the backfield and at receiver, the team's starting running back will be Deuce McAllister, who is one of the league's best when available; McAllister missed 11 games last year. At wide out is 34-year-old Joe Horn, who is one year removed from totaling 1,399 yards and 11 touchdowns. I'd like to think that last season's 654-yard, one-touchdown performance was simply an anomaly. Across from Horn is former first-round selection Donte' Stallworth, who has finally emerged as the receiver the Saints thought he would become when they drafted him No. 13 overall; Stallworth registered 70 receptions, 945 yards and seven touchdowns in 2005. As for the tight end position, the unknown Zach Hilton garnered 30 catches and 360 yards in the final seven weeks of last year's campaign. I expect Hilton to continue his production and eventually emerge as a top-tier tight end in the NFL.

One area of concern on offense is the front five, which allowed 41 sacks in 2005. The left side is solid with Jammal Brown and Montrae Holland, but there is concern at the other three slots. Center Jeff Faine, who will be replacing Pro Bowler LeCharles Bentley, is respectable but unspectacular; right guard Jermane Mayberry is a little bit worse; while right tackle Jon Stinchcomb would be a third-stringer on many other squads.

New Orleans better hope Brees is healthy and ready to go. If not, the team will have a three-way battle between Todd Bouman, Adrian McPherson and Jamie Martin. The city does not need that to happen.

Defense This Year: The Saints were ranked 26th against the run last year and 24th in that category in 2004. There's more than one reason for this. New Orleans was void of talent at the defensive tackle position next to Brian Young. The team traded away Johnathan Sullivan and acquired Hollis Thomas in a separate deal. While Thomas can be very effective against opposing ground gainers, he gets injured far too often.

The entire linebacking corps was also an issue. The triumvirate of Colby Bockwoldt, Ronald McKinnon and Sedrick Hodge was pretty brutal, so it's hard to imagine how the Saints managed to get worse. The latter two are gone and have been replaced by second-year Albert Fincher, who was a third-round selection, and Scott Fujita, who couldn't even play for Kansas City's defense. New Orleans also acquired Anthony Simmons and Tommy Polley, neither of whom is a legitimate starter in the NFL.

Stopping the run wasn't the Saints' only problem; they also had issues getting to the quarterback, as they registered only 25 sacks last year. After Will Smith (8), New Orleans' leading sack artist was Tony Bryant with four. No pressure on opposing signal callers means one thing -- a horrible pass defense. The Saints' starting secondary, which is actually decent, will once again have to cover receivers for an extended period of time. There is also a lack of depth at cornerback; the team has nothing beyond starters Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas. With Darren Howard, Sedrick Hodge and Fakhir Brown all gone, I can't imagine the Saints' stop unit being better than it was in 2005.

Schedule and Intangibles: Although the Saints are going home, the Louisiana Superdome has not been a kind home for them. Their 47-57 home record since 1992 is downright abysmal. ... What is New Orleans going to do on special teams? That question is not a negative one; the team has Michael Lewis and Bush at its disposal. Who will be returning kicks and punts? ... Kicker John Carney was solid yet again despite his age. The 42-year-old nailed 25-of-32 attempts in 2005. ... The Saints don't have many winnable games outside of their division because they have to play Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Dallas, Washington and the Giants. They do, however, get the luxury of beating up on Green Bay, Baltimore and San Francisco.

Analysis: The Saints have improved the most out of any team in the NFC South, but they remain a step below Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Like the Buccaneers and the Falcons, if New Orleans were playing in a different division, they would have a shot at the playoffs.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in the NFC South).

Atlanta Falcons (Last Year: 8-8).
Major Additions:
RB Jerious Norwood, OT Wayne Gandy, DE John Abraham, CB Jimmy Williams, S Chris Crocker, S Lawyer Milloy, K Zac Derr.
Major Subtractions:
WR Dez White, OT Kevin Shaffer, G Barry Stokes, DE Brady Smith, S Bryan Scott, S Keion Carpenter, K Todd Peterson.

Offense This Year: Although the Falcons started the 2005 season with a mark of 6-2, they finished with a disappointing 8-8 record and failed to qualify for the playoffs. In five of the six contests Atlanta lost late in the year, Michael Vick averaged just 4.4 rushes and only 19.8 yards per game. In the two victories, Vick ran the ball 12 times for 95 yards. Notice the correlation? Vick needs to take matters into his hands more often. If Jim Mora Jr. foolishly keeps insisting on using the West Coast Offense with his franchise signal caller, Atlanta will undoubtedly endure another non-postseason campaign. At that point, Mora should just go with Matt Schaub, whom many believe to be the best quarterback on the Falcons' roster.

When Vick must throw the ball, he will have the luxury of utilizing Alge Crumpler, one of the premier tight ends in the NFL. Crumpler registered team-high totals in receptions (65), receiving yards (877) and receiving touchdowns (5). Speaking of receiving, Atlanta's wide-out corps are in question. Brian Finneran led his position in yards with 611, while a pair of former No. 1 picks -- Michael Jenkins and Roddy White -- combined for just 954 yards. Are they simply mediocre, or is Vick just not getting them the ball? I have a feeling that no one will ever know until Schaub is under center. That said, I expect White to become the Falcons' leading receiver. The UAB product, who totaled 402 yards and three touchdowns in the second half of 2005, has looked impressive in mini camp.

One thing we do know is that Warrick Dunn is one of the fastest running backs in the league. Dunn compiled 1,416 yards and three touchdowns last year. So much for not being an every-down back.

An enormous area of concern is offensive line. The trade of Kevin Shaffer created a vacancy at left tackle, which has been filled by the pedestrian Wayne Gandy. In addition to the dilemma on the left side, I'm not a huge of fan of the rest of the front. After all, Vick was sacked 33 times in 15 games. This is Vick we're talking about -- not Drew Bledsoe. How is that even possible?

Defense This Year: The main reason why Atlanta was able to reach the NFC Championship Game in 2004 was because of its defense. The team accumulated 48 sacks and was ranked 13th against opposing ground attacks. In 2005, however, the Falcons were only able to register 37 sacks and were ranked 31st against the run. To fix their first problem, the Falcons traded their first-round pick and acquired defensive end John Abraham, who garnered 10 sacks with the Jets last year. Abraham will play next to Rod Coleman, who managed the same total in 2005, while defensive end Patrick Kerney compiled 6 himself.

A hectic pass rush will allow an improved secondary to make more plays on the ball. Joining incumbent cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Jason Webster are newly acquired safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker, and rookie corner Jimmy Williams. Helping out at linebacker is a formidable corps, comprised of veteran Keith Brooking, rising star Michael Boley and Edgerton Hartwell, who played in only five contests last year. Hartwell's return should boost a pathetic run defense.

That said, the Falcons' inability to stop opposing rushers will still be a liability because defensive end Chad Lavalais is simply not equipped to start in this league. Atlanta needed a monstrous defensive tackle next to Coleman to clog the middle. The organization did not secure one.

Schedule and Intangibles: Although Allen Rossum did not return a punt or a kick for a touchdown, he remains one of the top returners in the NFL. However, Atlanta's special teams are a concern because kicker Zac Derr has never attempted a field goal in his professional career. ... The Falcons were swept by both the Panthers and Falcons last year. They need to obtain domination if they want to win an extremely competitive NFC South. ... Like the rest of its division, Atlanta is confronted with a taxing schedule with fierce opponents, such as: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia and the Giants. Two soft spots are against Detroit and Baltimore.

Additional Reading: The Lost Coast Offense

Analysis: There's no question that Atlanta has improved this offseason. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, their team must endure a rigorous schedule. Like the Buccaneers, Atlanta will have to hope for better luck in 2007.

Projection: 7-9 (4th in the NFC South).

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2005 Season Preview:
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Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2006 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

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